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Control – Touching From a Distance (5)

by Ko Banerjea
15 Nov 2007 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Review
 

Courting angst is always an unsettling business but rarely more so than when the flirtation is a salve for other types of meaning. In an age of short termism, where the quick fix is king, there’s something almost quaint about the notion that life can be an artistic process, in motion, incomplete and crucially, imperfect; an apprenticeship to be served whatever the cost. Of course this is pure anachronism when set against the contemporary backdrop of machine tooled MOR pop records and a cast of millions for whom the ultimate act of pop rebellion is to challenge the omniscient X Factor judging panel. And even that small gesture only seems notable through its absence. Hard to imagine a Leona Lewis or Will Young or let’s face it any other aspiring contestant walking up to Simon Cowell, calling him a cunt and then hovering menacingly in his grill until he’s agreed to their demands. Yet that’s precisely what Ian Curtis achieves in a now legendary encounter with Tony Wilson – founder of Factory Records, the kingmaker at Granada TV and therefore Simon Cowell-esque figure bestriding the late 70s Manchester music and cultural scene like a lank haired colossus . It’s also a vignette that’s lovingly recreated in the Anton Corbijn biopic of the life and death of Ian Curtis, ‘Control’, currently on nationwide release.

Whilst the film allows us a knowing smirk at the faddishness of glamrock it never sneers at the younger Curtis’ creative stylings, forged as they are as much on a blueprint of Bowie and Bolan as on punk and the Pistols at the Free Trade Hall. Corbijn, whose stock in trade was as a rock’n'roll photographer, instinctively provides a snapshot of glam whose appeal to Ian Curtis went far beyond the lipstick smile and surface affectation of its folklore. Instead it is presented, in Paul Morley’s memorable phrase, as a ‘randy merger of chilling introversion, sacrificial extroversion, infringing presence and singular style.’ Corbijn’s vision dwells on the escapism of glamrock as a temporary respite from the dismal landscape of seventies Britain, an imaginary idyll where the teenage Ian Curtis can begin to dream his dreams of greatness. And that intensity – the ‘chilling introversion, sacrificial extroversion’ – punctures every monochrome frame of tedium that sits disapprovingly, like Ian’s DHSS boss, in the background. The film is perhaps at its strongest where it contrasts the ennui of the outside environment – endless terraces, uninspiring schools, meaningless jobs – with the smoke filled hum of the night: pubs, bars, clubs filled with the excitable, restless energy of youth – flat broke and having none of it. Corbijn’s decision to film in black and white seems inspired when the social milieu it describes is so stark – just another reminder, as if we needed it, that this is not X Factor. It captures the intimacy and claustrophobia of both the moment and its madness – the genesis of Joy Division and its troubled frontman from pub regulars to heroes of the underground circuit. But also the many ways that they never really left the pub: from the endless brawling to the intense camaraderie, the betrayals of love and its recovery in the rituals of performance. And drink. And pills.
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A word about those performances: they’re electrifying – Sam Riley, a relative unknown in his first major acting role, is remarkable in conveying the charismatic intensity and selfishness of Ian Curtis, whether driving himself and the crowd to the very edge in ‘Transmission’ or pushing the two women he loves, and who love him, to the very limits of their endurance. Yet he somehow also manages to portray a man ravaged by depression, despair and prescription drugs. And to make us care.

The extended live sequences are sparse, believable and intense, Curtis’ every twitch and spasm from his burgeoning epilepsy laid bare in the shadows and on stage. The in, the out, the grammar of Curtis’ breakdown. Physical collapse, emotional despair, critical acclaim. The in, the out. His is not a flighty hedonism though – for all the beauty and dreamlike quality of the film’s blue/black monochrome, it’s crystal clear about one thing: that Curtis’ physical decline owes less to rock’n'roll excess, far more to the lethal NHS cocktail he was being prescribed for his condition. There are key moments – the backstage fit, Curtis’ realisation that epilepsy kills – when the film seems to suggest that the consequences of losing control are catastrophic for an ordinary kid like Ian Curtis. His altered state is neither sustainable nor particularly desired and Riley cuts an increasingly tragic figure as Curtis, on the verge of Joy Division’s inaugural American tour and its promise of superstardom, is finally consumed by his demons leaving behind a truly broken social scene and a back-catalogue to launch a thousand bands.

Samantha Morton is powerfully understated as the long suffering Deborah Curtis, and the fact that the real life Deborah Curtis helped to produce the film is all the more remarkable given its attempt to reconcile, without bitterness, the roles played by the two women in Ian Curtis’ life. Yes it’s good on atmosphere, great on detail – fitting on the mic, coffin nails, British Leyland Transit Vans, the DHSS – but it’s even bigger in terms of its heart. It forgives the wasted promise of Ian Curtis and if it’s true that distance lends enchantment to the way history is viewed then perhaps its emergence now partially redeems the pop cultural failures of these times too.

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